Phil Jackson is about to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. J.A. Adande takes a look at his unique style of coaching.
Phil Jackson enters the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend, and to understand how he coached his way there, it might help to familiarize yourself with the concept of “antimatter” — that is, to realize that the opposite of something is still something, not nothing. That way, it makes sense that some of his best coaching moves come from not coaching, that the best way for players to appreciate him is to not play for him.
For a man with such an immense ego, the irony is Jackson has derived so much success by taking himself out of the equation. He realizes coaching isn’t about getting the players to do what you want, it’s about getting them to want to do what’s right. He always put the game above himself, placed his trust in the players more than his ways.
Opposing coaches might wonder why he doesn’t make an adjustment while they run the same play successfully against him time after time. Fans get agitated when the other team runs off 10 consecutive points and Jackson steadfastly refuses to call a timeout, sitting as motionless as if he were modeling for a Buddha sculpture. Jackson always believed that during times of duress, if the players discovered their own solutions they would benefit in the long run. He was right.
What is the essence of coaching? Getting the most out of your players and putting them in position to win. You won’t find a coach or manager who did that on a more consistent basis than Phil Jackson.
Jackson’s big number is the record nine NBA championships he shares with Red Auerbach, but here’s the telltale stat: Only once has Jackson lost a playoff series in which his team had home-court advantage. That means that nearly every time they were supposed to win, they did. A grand record of 35-1 when starting at home. His squads almost always maxed out, even these past two Lakers first-round departures, who traveled just as far as they were built to go.
Sure he’s had great players, most notably Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and Shaq and Kobe in L.A. But Auerbach coached 10 future Hall of Famers in Boston, so he wasn’t exactly doing it with scrubs. And if the best talent always guaranteed the best results, Marty Schottenheimer would still be coaching the San Diego Chargers. Why didn’t the 1991 Portland Trail Blazers or the 2002 Sacramento Kings win championships? Oh, that’s right, Rick Adelman was coaching them.
Another sign of Jackson’s success: the way his critics keep turning into allies.
When players see the alternative usually involves more stress and less winning, they realize they’re better off with Jackson. That’s why these days you’ll hear Bryant praise Jackson for “his understanding of the game, his understanding of unit cohesiveness, his patience. I think all of those things, the little intricacies of the game that he’s really picked up, that a lot of coaches and players don’t really understand, he’s mastered. It’s separated him from the pack, in my opinion.”
Jackson can do X’s and O’s. But he isn’t the best at it. And it’s not what he does best. Sometimes less is more.
The goal of Buddhism is nirvana, a state of being that’s devoid of wants and fears, the extinction of the individual consciousness. There’s that notion of nothing again. For Jackson, it might be more of a means than an end. He might not have reached nirvana, but he has made it to Springfield, Mass. He’s the “Seinfeld” of the sidelines, turning the concept of nothing into success.
It’s been an amazing thing to watch. He’s simply unparalleled in modern professional sports, with its free agency, massive league expansion, and culture of individuality. Nobody has come close to getting this much of out teams since the era when great coaches could stockpile talent and keep the same stars together for a decade or more.
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